In which we find Niall headed West seeking truth.
Niall arrived home late that Sunday afternoon feeling pretty good. He was digesting an excellent meal. He had enjoyed the friendly company of happy people. He was happy with going to work tomorrow and taking it easy for the rest of the day today. As he entered the house, he glanced at the TV and thought about what he wanted to watch tonight. He enjoyed TV more now than he had before he went overseas. There was a lack of commercials and the shows were no longer filled with nothing but explicit sex and gratuitous violence. He never had to start watching a show in the middle since the shows could all be watched at any time. True, there was a lot of experimental theatre and other shows that held no interest for Niall but he only had a few hours a week in which he watched and there were always many things available that he did want to watch.
So he settled down on the couch and decided he would catch the live broadcast of the baseball game. The Nationals were at home playing against Boston and he decided to pick the game up in the middle live rather than starting it from the beginning. The stands were pretty well-filled. This surprised Niall since he couldn't remember such interest in the Nationals this early in the season in the past. It was good baseball.
Niall began thinking about the ratings for the games. This led him to remember that the computer in the TV that was showing him the game was probably reporting his activity to the network. That reminded him that the computer might even be able to see where he was looking on the screen to report that as well.
Niall became self-conscious. Someone could be watching him right now via the TV, even if he turned it off. The warm glow which had surrounded him since lunch with Dusty quickly dissipated. Its replacement was a colder than usual reality. His interest in the game waned and he turned it off.
He just sat staring at the blank screen of the TV, thinking. This computer network was simply too good a tool to control and manipulate people for it not to be used by someone. Those people at the baseball game were just like the crowds at the Roman circuses. A ration of bread each day and the Circus in the afternoon to keep their minds off their situation would keep the people quiet and in line. The parallels to ancient Rome were terrifying. Why didn't they show the iron fist in the velvet glove? Why did everything feel so free when the power for absolute control was right there on the wall? There had to be an explanation. There had to be a reason for the lack of apparent force.
Perhaps they weren't quite ready yet. Perhaps everything wasn't in place. Perhaps they were waiting for something to be completed. Perhaps there was a missing element. What could it be that was lacking? Were they secretly training police or troops? Worse, were they secretly training secret police? Still worse than that, were they brainwashing the children, somehow, to passively take orders? But he was visiting his own grandchildren once or twice a week and they didn't seem brainwashed or addicted to the TV. His daughter said that most children were now being home-schooled so that didn't seem like it could be brainwashing, either. If the TV wasn't doing it and over half the children were being taught by a parent, how could they be brainwashed? No, that didn't fit.
Training police? Why would they need to train police? They could force control of the mob just by cutting off the food supply. The same was true for soldiers. There had to be something, though. Maybe it had to do with the computers. The TVs seemed to be everywhere, so it couldn't be a lack of TVs. But there could be software issues. When he was studying computers 20 years ago, Niall learned that the hardware was usually quite a bit ahead of the software. There were far more problems in using computers caused by software bugs than by bad hardware. Hardware was almost always easier to test than software, for example. Perhaps they were having problems in debugging their software. Perhaps hackers were disrupting things.
Could the freedom of the USA be dependent on the activities of a handful of computer hackers? It didn't seem likely to Niall. Surely the security of such an important aspect of the controlling network would be one of the first and most important priorities to the ruling group. Anyway, if the hackers did exist and were preventing what Niall was rapidly beginning to consider Judgment Day, he had no hope of finding them and his computer skills were far too old to be useful to them.
However, even if what they were waiting for had nothing to do with the computer system that connected the TVs and provided account information, the controlling group had to have some means of controlling those computers and that meant that they had to have a close connection with the computers. So if Niall wanted to find this cabal or whatever it was he was going to have to develop a close connection with the computer system himself. That meant that he needed to change jobs.
Did he dare go back to Enid Lee? Would that look suspicious? Could he come up with a cover story that would fool her and whoever else was watching? She'd said that all she'd done to get the list of jobs in the area was to ask her computer. Of course it probably was programmed to search for jobs for her but Niall figured it couldn't be that hard since he'd been finding information on computers all his life. He thought he'd try doing without her to at least find some computer-related jobs.
But it had been 20 years since he had last seriously worked with computers. He could hardly claim to be a programmer or software engineer. Perhaps he could get something that involved the hardware of the database servers. There had to be a huge amount of information in databases to keep track of the whole economy. Just the identifying information for every person the computers knew about would take terabytes of information.
"Jeeves?" The TV came on and from it a sound like a babbling brook.
"You rang, sir?" Jeeves had trickled in.
"Jeeves, I'd like to know if there are any jobs helping take care of the hardware that stores large databases of information."
"I'm sure there are, sir."
"Could you get me a list of any vacancies for such jobs?"
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir. Did you want all of them or just positions in commuting distance from Aldie?"
"How many are there in the whole nation?"
"Since your question about 'taking care of' was rather imprecise I can't give you a precise answer, sir. But if you meant personally touching the devices I believe there are 122 such openings announced for the nation. If you expand it to include those who work in the building, then there are over 3,000 nationally, sir."
"Where are they least likely to have many applicants for the work in that second category?"
"I believe, sir, that it would be most difficult at the Los Alamos site in New Mexico."
"Isn't that where they build the atomic bombs?"
"I believe that was a city in which many atomic bombs were designed, yes, sir."
"Is it still a government military base?"
"No, sir. They closed it down as a military base shortly after the transition, I believe, sir. But they had a large capacity computer facility there, sir, which has been an important part of the network since the transition."
"Why do they have trouble getting people to work there?"
"It's in the Rocky Mountains, sir, far away from any large towns. There's not much else to do there, sir, except work on the computer. They sometimes have trouble persuading people to work there."
"Sounds promising, Jeeves. Could you put me in touch with an employment office there?"
"Yes, sir. One moment, sir, I'll see if anyone is available."
Niall waited. He was a little impatient to get started now that he had some idea of how to proceed. Maybe his analysis of the situation was leading him astray but he had no idea how to fight back if this wasn't the way to go.
Brianna would be disappointed that he wouldn't be visiting her and the children so often. But there was the phone. He could see them by phone. If long distance were a luxury he'd be happy to pay for it.
"Sir, are you ready to talk to Julian Martinez about working in the Los Alamos area?"
"Yes, Jeeves. Please put him on."
"How do you do, Mr. Martinez? I'm Niall Campbell. Jeeves, please make my employment record available to Mr. Martinez at his convenience."
"How do you do, Mr. Campbell. I understand that you'd like some assistance in finding work in this area."
"Yes, Mr. Martinez. I've been wanting to get into the computer business. Back before I went abroad to work for Uncle Sam I really enjoyed my computer studies. I understand that computers have no doubt changed far too much in the last 20 years for me to become a programmer or software engineer but I thought there might be something computer-related that I could do, sort of on the fringes of the computing business that would allow me to learn what I could do in that line."
"I believe I understand what you want. We do have several computing facilities here in Los Alamos. We also have a labor shortage. I believe that we can probably find a variety of things you would find congenial and productive. Please allow me to look over your references and talk to some people here and I should be able to present you with several alternatives tomorrow afternoon. Shall I notify your man," at this Julian smiled slightly, "when I have something for you?"
"That would be most considerate of you, sir. I shall await your call. Thank you and good day to you, sir."
"It will be my pleasure to be of service to you, sir. Until tomorrow."
"Thank you, Jeeves. You may close the connection."
"Very good, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?"
Tomorrow. That's a Monday. I just did business with an employment office on a Sunday. That proves that employment offices aren't run by the government, Niall chuckled to himself. "Jeeves, please call Brianna, social call."
Niall explained that he felt the need to get away from everything and examine what he wanted to do with his life. He said that the mountains of New Mexico would let him have the isolation and the change of scenery necessary to discover himself. He said that he didn't know how long it would take… but that he didn't think he would be gone very long, perhaps only a couple of months. Brianna was disappointed but philosophical about it.
Niall next notified Jerome that he would probably not be driving with him more than another day or two. He told Sam that the house would be available again by the end of the week. He walked downtown with a couple of sacks of groceries to return them to the store and post a notice for the farmers that he wouldn't be coming by to pick up organic waste and gave Jerome as a contact person. He also spent a couple of hours on Tuesday morning sitting on Enid's porch chatting about life in general and what he had learned by working at the TDP plant. Then he experienced a feeling of loss as he realized that he would probably never be coming back to Aldie. He'd been treated well by the people of that small town and he would miss them, even Desiree.
Niall had chosen work as what we might call a computer operator. His actual post was to be a human being in the computer center in case something needed to be done physically to any of the equipment. As his computer knowledge was out of date, he couldn't have expected anything much more technical. But for Niall's objectives, nothing could have gotten him closer to the very computers he felt were the key to finding the group that was creeping closer to controlling every aspect of life.
Niall had decided to drive to New Mexico and had allocated three days for the trip. He found that there was much less traffic than he had expected. There were trucks on the road, but not as many as there had been 20 years before. There were some very nice cars on the Interstate but, again, not as many. He wondered if the lack of traffic was a symptom of economic decay or of repression. He decided to find out.
Selecting a likely-looking truck stop, he pulled in and sought a place at the counter. After ordering and then waiting quietly for a couple of minutes, he was able to strike up a conversation with a trucker sitting two stools over. He was an older man (which is why Niall had selected the stool he did) and was happy to talk. Niall worked the conversation around to the traffic (which was not hard to do) and inquired whether it was just his imagination or was there less traffic than years ago when he left the country.
"Oh yeah. Traffic is down quite a bit from what it was years ago. I remember right after the transition when we had that gas shortage. There was almost nothing but trucks on the road in those days and not so many of them. People were trying to only ship essentials. Lots of folks found ways to make things locally instead of importing from some place across the country. After the shortage ended there didn't seem any reason to stop making things locally if there was a local market for them."
"As for the cars, folks travel a lot more by train than they did before. It costs a lot less and it's a lot more comfortable. Also, fewer people own cars. Why spend half your money to have and maintain a car when you can get around just fine without one most of the time and can rent one cheaply for the times you do need a car. Cars are really expensive when you don't have to have one for getting to work. I don't own one myself."
Niall had noticed that his was one of the few plain cars on the road. Most of the cars he saw on the highway were obviously luxury cars. His own car was a hybrid, gas and electric. It got over 60 miles per gallon and would go pretty fast but Niall was in no great hurry. At least there was no ominous reason for the light traffic and it did make highway travel less stressful.
Niall also noticed that there were no billboards. There were discreet signs on the highway indicating products available at the next exit but no billboards or large garish signs.
The motels he stopped at were luxury places. The prices were not as high as he remembered but he was able to get rooms with no reservations and was able to order standard food in the restaurant at the motel. He was not surprised to find that Jeeves was available with each TV. It was comforting to talk with Brianna each night and ask the kids what they had learned in "school" each day.
He got to Santa Fe the afternoon of the third day and decided to spend the night there and report to Julian the next morning. He walked around the downtown and enjoyed looking at the authentic Indian and Spanish architecture and crafts. He was tempted to buy some jewelry for Brianna but decided he would have plenty of time for that later. The air was crisp and cooled quickly as dusk set in. He decided to buy a light jacket.
The clerk was helpful inquiring about his intended use for the jacket and finally ending by recommending several hiking paths and other activities that would be available near Los Alamos. Niall had the impression he had been served by the Chamber of Commerce or the local Booster Club. But as a result of the clerk's comments and suggestions, he had selected a different jacket than he would have and saved about 20% on the price.
Niall left the store wearing the jacket and feeling pretty good. The people here appeared to be just as friendly as the folks back in Aldie. He still had over $70,000 in his account. The new work just might lead him to the conspiracy he knew must be there. He went back to the hotel with more optimism than at any time since he had landed at Dulles Airport.
The next day Niall met Julian Martinez at his office in an actual office building in Los Alamos. Niall had begun to think that all offices were in homes. There were empty offices in the building, evidence of the disappearance of government-sponsored projects. After the usual greetings, Julian said they had an appointment at a computer server farm and data repository for later that morning. While they waited, Julian showed Niall around town, including several housing offices in Julian's building. On Julian's recommendation, Niall made an appointment at one of them.
At the appointed hour they went to the computation center where they met some of the people with whom Niall would be working. They were a diverse lot. Some were left over from the days when Los Alamos had been a major center for nuclear weapons research. Others were what Niall would have called hippies in his youth. There were some whose appearance was that of the American Indian, several Hispanics, and a smattering of Asians. He was interviewed informally for about two hours as people came by when they got a break from what they were doing to ask him questions and tell him about what it was like to work there. Niall's responsibility was mostly physical security at night. He was to be a night watchman. But he was expected to be able to replace and do minor repairs for much of the equipment on the machine room floor.
His own questions had more to do with what services they were providing. His guess that they were somehow involved with the accounting computers was correct. Over the next few days Niall learned that this computer center had been one of the first places to be utilized for testing the programs that made the accounting computer what it was. He even heard an amusing story from the first year after the transition.
It seems that a bright young hacker and one of the security guards had the brilliant idea of increasing the amount of money in their accounts without going through the formality of actually doing anything to deserve being paid nor involving a payer. One of the operators on duty after hours was the guard's girl friend. So the guard distracted the operator by making love to her while the hacker slipped in and, using the console and his knowledge of the operating system, was able to gain access to the accounts database and changed the values in his and the guard's accounts. Then he slipped out of the building undetected.
They were riding high until the first time one of them tried to spend money. Then he found out that his account was frozen by court order and he was to appear in the local court the next Tuesday for trial. Since the two of them had no money, they couldn't run except on foot. They might have left the country, but then they wouldn't have been a problem any more for the U.S. They did appear in court, as requested and were presented with the evidence of what they had done. They pled guilty and were sentenced to have their story publicized and made into a comedy movie. They had their 15 minutes of fame at the price of looking foolish to everyone who saw the movie. Naturally, the event also became a part of their reputations. Lastly, the operator was so embarrassed that she broke up with the guard.
What made the story so funny to the staff of the computer center was that by changing the amount of money in their accounts the hacker and friend had identified themselves as the criminals. They hadn't known that the computer system was highly redundant, such that when they changed the values in the database in Los Alamos they made that installation's data no longer match the data at the other installations. Therefore, the source of the insertion was sought, found, and examined. The entry of data from the console considerably narrowed the range of possible suspects and the time of day had identified the operator on duty. Her testimony concerning how the console had been used and her evening activities had pretty much clinched the case.
Niall also found that changing the program that ran the accounting system required simultaneous entry of the changes from each of the many consoles in the distributed system. The proposed new code was freely available for several months for others to test before being installed. It was common for computer science students to be assigned to find new ways to test new code. Also, the source code for the accounting was freely available. Therefore, it was common for hackers and others to attempt to find bugs and vulnerabilities. The rewards for finding problems and for providing solutions were rather high.
The people with whom Niall would be working most closely weren't available in many cases, since they worked other shifts. But he was taken under the wing of a crusty old operator named Fred Gundersen who had been working there for some 35 years and dated back to the twentieth century. He could remember when he had to have a security clearance to enter the building. He was also carrying a handgun in a holster on his belt. Needless to say this caught Niall's attention.
"Will I need to carry a gun, too?" Niall was perfectly willing to carry a gun but he hadn't expected to have any call to shoot someone as part of his job.
"It's this way. There are some pretty crazy groups living in the mountains who would like nothing better than to destroy the accounting system and go back to a POM. For them this place is a symbol of all they hate. They've never actually attacked this place but there have been some nasty rumors about plans to attack it. I figure that if they do attack, there should be somebody to put up at least a token resistance. If they kill me, then they'll have shown their true colors as terrorists and the army can come in and root them out. Otherwise, if they just come in here and smash the place, it may not be replaced and nobody will be able to work here anymore. Most folks don't want to work out here miles from nowhere but for some of us it is as close to heaven on Earth as you can find. We like this place and don't want to lose it."
"You carry a gun so you can get killed?" Niall was half joking and half serious.
"It sounds kind of funny when you say it that way but that's what it comes down to. I'm willing to put my life on the line to protect what's mine. I don't ask anyone else to do so but I made my decision and I've never regretted it. I also haven't made a secret of my intentions. There are several others of us who feel the same way. They carry guns to work, too."
"Do you keep the gun loaded?" Niall asked.
"Son, you have to treat every gun as if it's always loaded. I wouldn't carry this gun unless I was willing to use it and an empty gun's not much good. If I'm going to be killed I intend to be very dangerous to my killers."
"Would it be all right if I carried a gun as well?"
Fred laughed, "Given your work history I'd be pleased and proud to have you join the 'Over-the-Hill Gang'. That's what we call those of us who carry guns."
"Do you issue guns or do I have to provide my own?"
"We aren't police and we aren't military. A gun's a luxury so you'll have to provide your own. Now that may take you a while so I wouldn't count on getting one right away."
Niall asked Jeeves where the nearest gun shop was and was told that it was in Santa Fe. Since acquiring the gun was not a high priority item, Niall figured that he'd wait until he was in Santa Fe for some other reason, and pick one up then.
But talking to Jeeves did bring up another topic that Niall had been wondering about.
"Fred, you've been working around computers most of your adult life, haven't you?"
"That I have. I even had a little computer to play with when I was in Junior High."
"Have you ever wondered… well," Niall said brushing his hair back with his left hand, "whether they are alive in some way? You know, like Jeeves. He sounds and I bet he could look just like a person on the monitor. It's spooky in a way."
"Oh yeah, I know what you mean. There was a movie called 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a computer was named 'Hal' and… and that computer seemed to be alive in a lot of ways. I remember looking at my computer and wondering if someday computers would be like Hal and take over things. I guess that's been one of the most common computer-related fears of people since way back before I was born."
"So do you think they might actually have an awareness like people do?"
"I guess there must be some computer research going on that's trying to create a computer program that generates self-awareness in them but I don't think it'll happen any time soon. Have you heard about them using 'natural selection' to write computer software?"
"Can't say whether I did or not. It doesn't ring any bells."
"Well they got some way of writing software so it makes billions of copies of itself, each with some random little changes in them. Now most of them just die or fail right away and don't work at all. The software gets rid of those. But a few work differently. Most of those don't do a good job at all or make errors. But some do the job better. Those copies the software keeps and uses to repeat the whole process. After a time, the programs get better and better. Maybe something like that might one day make a living computer but I wouldn't hold my breath."
"But don't you ever worry about the computer taking over and running things?"
"Never. The computer doesn't give a damn. It doesn't care about anything. It's like a rock or a fire. It doesn't have any choice about what it does any more than those pliers over there choose what to pinch. If a computer ever tried to take over it would be because some person was using it, not because the computer wanted world domination."
"How can you be so sure of that?"
"Because they still can't make computers that take care of themselves. Sure they use computers to manufacture almost everything. But the computers break down in ways a person or an animal never would, just from not trying to take care of themselves. They haven't got any sense."
"Well I sure hope you're right."
The work was not that difficult, since it mostly required only that he be present but he made a point of studying some of the documentation for the systems he was protecting. He also asked a lot of questions about how the equipment typically failed and what kind of things to be sensitive to. The facility had its own uninterruptible power source and he was also expected to try to repair the large diesel engine in an emergency. He hoped that would never come, since he had never been particularly good with engines. He was paying close attention when they tested it one night and was impressed that it also ran quietly just as Bart had done. This engine also had its own computer, though it was not intelligent enough to have personality. Then he was told that it was the computer he was to repair or replace, not the engine itself. There were spare computers which could be used with the engine if the built-in computer failed.
Niall formed several friendships with other operators and some of the other staff. His frequent questions labeled him as someone who wanted to better himself in the organization, so everyone was happy to answer his questions.
Niall was invited to join several of his friends and some others to a party one Friday night. This party was a turning point in Niall's life, which, as turning points often do, looked very much like a disaster at the time.